For more than three decades now, any discussion of heavy metal's fastest, heaviest and most influential bands has begun (and often ended) with Slayer, the Los Angeles foursome that has served as the genre's raging, antisocial id since forming in the early 1980s. In the time since, the group has grown from underground, possibly Satanic darlings of the metal tape-trading circuit to respected and deified thrash originators with the gold records, Grammys and plum festival gigs (like last weekend's Fun Fun Fun Fest) to prove the legend.
Why, then, does it feel as though Slayer's tyrannical reign of global audio terrorism could soon be coming to an end?
Well, to put it mildly, the last couple of years have been a real motherfucker for Slayer. First, there was bassist/singer Tom Araya's recovery from back surgery to ease pain brought on by a lifetime of thrashing. Then this February, the band parted ways (again) with founding drummer Dave Lombardo, a major disappointment to speed freaks worldwide. Most seriously of all, though, was the May passing of Jeff Hanneman, Slayer's rhythm guitarist and the architect of most of their best-loved blasphemies. Is it really possible for Slayer to continue on without the man who wrote "Angel of Death?"
To find out, we turned to Araya, the Chilean-born ex-Los Angeleno who has called small-town East Texas home now for nearly two decades.
"My wife is from Houston," the shaggy singer explains. "When she was pregnant with our first child, she wasn't handling the pregnancy very well, so she wanted to be closer to her family. We came to Texas for that reason, so she could be closer to her mom.
"Now I'm completely Texan-ized," says the singer with his disarming laugh.
Typically, of course, Araya is far away from home, touring the world in one metal's biggest bands. In speaking with him, however, it becomes clear that the front man could be seriously considering hanging up the spikes and taking it easy while he still can. Hanneman's death from alcohol-related cirrhosis, a complete surprise to fans, changed everything.
"It was just as shocking to me," Araya says, his tone growing contemplative. "We all have issues with vices in life, but I didn't know they were to that extent with his health. It was a shocking thing to get a phone call saying, 'Hey, Jeff passed away this morning,' and I'm like, 'What?! I talked to him a few days ago, and everything was fine!'"
Still grieving, Slayer is now in the midst of their first North American tour since their comrade's passing. As a treat for fans and a tribute to Hanneman, the band is playing a special "old-school" set stocked with cuts from the first half of Slayer's career, from Show No Mercy through Seasons in the Abyss. Still filling in for Hanneman on a semi-permanent basis is Exodus guitarist Gary Holt, while Paul Bostaph, the band's drummer from 1992-2001, replaces Lombardo for a second time.
It's a trek that the singer says Slayer signed a contract to complete more than a year ago. While the crowds are still uproarious and the songs remain insane, though, Araya says that Slayer is a changed band.
"Before, there was always hope that (Hanneman) would return," he says. "It wasn't a question of returning, it was a question of when he was returning. After he passed and we went to Europe to do that tour maybe a month later, it was... it was different. People don't realize that he had a major creative role in this band and in this new music we called thrash metal.
"I still find myself having to tell myself now that he's passed that he's not going to be a part of the band anymore," Araya continues. "So it changes your attitude; it changes your mood about things. It changes your outlook on quite a bit."
Has some of the Satanic glee gone out of the Slayer experience for Tom Araya? Sure seems like it. The 52-year-old thrasher's own health issues have affected his mobility on stage and made long flights uncomfortable to endure.
"I can't headbang anymore," he says wistfully. "That was my enjoyment, to be out there jamming and just headbanging. I was working at trying to be the best headbanger out there! And then they put the brakes on because of my neck. So yeah, it took some of the excitement away from me."
Interview continues on the next page.
Slayer's current tour is the last on the band's books. When it concludes, Araya says, it will be time to make some hard decisions regarding the group's future -- a future without Hanneman and, presumably, Lombardo.
"That's something that me and Kerry [guitarist King] have to sit down and communicate our thoughts about," he says. "I have my feelings and my thoughts, and I need to share them with Kerry. That's what's going to happen on this trip. We need to sit down and figure out what we want to do and how to move forward."
While that's certainly not as definitive as many Slayer diehards might have hoped, the band is far from inactive. Writing for a potential new album began more than a year before Hanneman's death, and the guitarist left behind a trove of self-recorded demos that could form the backbone of a future Slayer release.
"There is definitely music there," Araya says. "Whether we get permission to use it or not is another story! But there is stuff there, and I plan to go through it and listen to it and see what he had, what gems are in there. There is talk of an album. We'll see."
And if that album doesn't materialize? What then? Could Slayer be killed off?
"I don't know, dude!" says Araya, laughing again. "I don't know. I don't think Slayer will ever end because our music is going to live forever. Our music will always be accessible to anybody that wants to hear it. When you talk about it like that, I think we'll be around for a really long time."
Just in case they aren't, be sure to catch Slayer at Bayou Music Center on Tuesday night. After all, there's only one thing that's kept them going for more than 30 years of headaches and hangovers.
"The fans, man," says Araya, smiling and laughing once more. "That's the best part of what I do, is when I'm out there playing, looking down and seeing all these bright, shining faces. Believe it or not, it's the bright, shining, smiling faces that make it all worthwhile."
Slayer carves up Bayou Music Center Tuesday night with Gojira and 4-ARM. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.
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